Attempt = 23

Circadian by Chelsey Clammer
Red Hen Press, 2017

Reviewed by Karoline Schaufler


Circadian cover

Chelsey Clammer’s Circadian equally delights the analyst and the poet in me. Clammer’s book is a lyric essay collection that draws on disciplines as diverse as biology, linguistics, genealogy, and nomenclature and combines them in unexpected ways to reevaluate her world and her place in it. The very first essay, On Three, sets the stage for this combinatory collection by giving us a glimpse into the author’s experience with a drunk father through a bullet pointed list that reads like something between a mathematician’s field notebook and a nutritionist’s diary. In On Three the father is defined by his measurements: his height, weight, and overall health. Likewise, we come to understand his habit through numbers. We learn, for example, that “A handle of 80-proof vodka contains 3,830 calories. If one were to subsist solely on a diet of one handle of 80-proof vodka per day, and if that person were to sleep the whole day and never exercise, then that person would consume a surplus of 1,330 calories a day. At this rate, a pound would be gained every 2.71 days. That’s a pound every 64.96 hours.”

The essays in Circadian continue like this, stunning beautiful lines of lyrical prose with gems of encyclopedic fact. Mother Tongue combines medicine and wordplay to diagnose a condition related to the idiom “don’t eat your words” then goes on to deal with census data, computer shortcuts, infinity, and, of course, more wordplay, all to explore naming and womanhood. Outlines for Change ruminates on life and death as they come to head when the father is found dead. As if to process unanswerable questions, the essay is full of diagrams of dividing cells, cost analyses, and a key for transforming letters into numbers so words can be added up analytically and forced to spit out an intelligible answer.

Although they dwell in various disciplines, all of Clammer’s essays come together in an urgent pounding rhythm that lends itself to every framework and each of the author’s concerns. Snippets from I Could Title this Wavering, Circadian, and Outline for Change demonstrate a pervasive ticking that underlines the pieces like a metronome beat in music or a biological beating heart:

“I want an unsounding.
I’m not sure how to do this.
I waver.”
—”I Could Title this Wavering”

“I see the silver slice of metal.
I see his skin.
I wince.
It is years later
I remember the silver slice of metal.
remember his defenseless skin.
I still wince.”

Example #3
A = 1
   T = 2
   T = 2
   E = 5
   M = 4
   P = 7
   T = 2
 1 + 2 + 2 + 5 + 4 + 7 + 2 = 23”
—”Outline for Change”

Sections like these come into each piece in Circadian to break up longer paragraphs of prose, giving the collection a rhythm that weaves all of the essays and themes together, whether we are asked to make sense of them through numbers, words, or a combination of both.

Amid the statistics, double entendre, and mitosis, Circadian is a book about personal trauma, metnal illness, alcoholism, womanhood, and identity. With each rhythmic pounding of the form, the content also expands and contracts. Characters find peace and then loose it again, numbers add up until they suddenly don’t, and just when the family stabilizes, with two daughters off to college and a father up for promotion, it suddenly breaks apart again when the drinking begins. In form and theme, Clammer seems to constantly be questioning what it means for both people and ideas to come together and be pulled apart. As its title suggests, Circadian is a book about rhythms of life and the things that leave us, only to come back around. It is about the frameworks we use to view the world and make sense of things as best we can, and how who we are one day can help us understand who we are the next.

KAROLINE SCHAUFLER is a graduate student in the MA program at Western Washington University.

Featured image by Jason Leung